Kat Clay on a collection of stories by Attila Veres
Liminal is an overused word in the annals of weird fiction. It describes those borderline places between the cracks of life and death. The place where other things exist; lost socks and elder gods. Be warned: if you stare for too long, you might not find your way back. But liminal is the perfect word to describe short story collection The Black Maybe (Valancourt Books, 2022; translated by Luca Karafiáth) by Hungarian author Attila Veres. These stories of Veres’ Hungary exist in a limbo made of folklore and a national history rent by violence and political extremism.
In these tales, the hidden traditions of Eastern Europe come into conflict with the modern continent. The characters in Veres’ stories are often disenfranchised, out of work or under-employed, suffering from existential malaise brought on by very real circumstances. They seek the underground – whether that is the forgotten indie music scene, the ploughing of the earth, or the very bowels of Hell.
In ‘Fogtown’, a rock journalist goes missing as he pursues a hidden sound. It’s symbolic of a greater Hungarian narrative, reminiscent of the experiences of those who survived the communist regime. Ask too many questions and you’ll never be seen again. ‘The Amber Complex’ rewards readers willing to go along for the ride of tangled memories, imbibing the wine of life at the world’s strangest cellar door.
With both overt and subtle nods to the work of H.P. Lovecraft, The Black Maybe is a cosmic horror collection for the modern era. Two of the more overt Lovecraftian tales are ‘Multiplied by Zero’, recalling the Dreamlands in terrifying array, and ‘Walks Among You’, with worship inspired by the book of Abdul Alhazred.
‘Multiplied by Zero’ takes the form of a review of Abaddon Travels and their Askathoth travel package. And while these types of stories can easily become satirical, user Sabesz1984 tells of the horrors of his trip with such detachment that it becomes horrific. It’s a perfect example of bathos at work, balancing stuffy bus rides with bloody cults. Lovecraft fans will be bleakly amused by the ban on Necronomicon exports (too much human skin) or the radio stations playing local pop hits ‘written in an atonal key and sung by voices imitating nightmares in the language of gods long dead.’
‘Walks Among You’ explores what would happen if Necronomicon’s death cult of the Great Lords was made public in a world of uneasy tolerance. While it lands in an expected place, it expertly melds memory with collective grief and story structure itself, illustrating the existential dilemma at the heart of this collection. The Gods do not care, as Dr Vércsehalmi guides, ‘[…] the universe surrounding us is indifferent to our suffering or joy.’ It is this story which gets to the core of the collection’s existential dread, starting with the ominious, ‘The mourners know the priest is lying, for life is nothing but the absence of truth.’ We as readers may wish turn away from uncertainty, but the cult leans into the indifference of the universe.
Where some horror authors escalate their narratives once and be done, Veres amps the tension up with surprise upon surprise. This is seen best in the spectacular ‘Return to the Midnight School’, which can be summed up as Midsommar meets Children of the Corn on steroids. It’s the highlight of this collection, an exceptional folk horror story in which the liminal space of life and death meets in the loamy soil of strange harvests. ‘Our world is the noon school, theirs is the midnight school […]’ But ‘they’ are never fully explained; not the dead, nor the living, but the in-between. This folk liminality is revisited in the last story, ‘The Black Maybe’, both a tribute to the uncertainty of existence, and a reference to a very real creature which emerges from the self.
With these unexpected escalations, The Black Maybe is a jaw-dropping read. These slippery stories twist in unexpected and horrifying ways. Will I tell you what ways they go? No, you’ll have to find out for yourself. Besides which, the Elder Lords are watching… ∎
Kat Clay’s short stories have been published in Cosmic Horror Monthly, Aurealis, Translunar Travelers Lounge, and several anthologies. Her non-fiction and criticism has been published in The Guardian, The Victorian Writer, and Weird Fiction Review, and she was a contributor to the Locus winning and Hugo nominated Dangerous Visions and New Worlds: Radical Science Fiction, 1950 to 1985. You can read ‘The Black Box Killer’, Kat’s experimental futuristic thriller inspired by 60s new wave science fiction, in Interzone #294.
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